Social Media Skewers NASA Scientist for Comet Comments

In 2011, some feared "doomsday" Comet Elenin would hit Earth, but only remnants passed by our planet. Photo Credit: Chloe Yelland

Logan Pollard
California News Service

SAN FRANCISCO – One recent “explosion” on social media is about the potential for an actual explosion.

At a meeting of nuclear scientists in San Francisco last week, Dr. Joseph Nuth, the Senior Scientist for Primitive Bodies at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said an “extinction-level event” could happen if Earth were hit by a very large comet.

This fall, FEMA and NASA studied what would happen if such an object crashed into Southern California, and found its effects would be deadly. But Nuth said he didn’t anticipate the social media reaction to his talk, that his point was the nation’s overall lack of preparedness. And he said the news media took him too literally.

“It’s true that I said that, but taking it out of context basically would be the equivalent of saying, ‘The sky is falling,’ you know, ‘Something’s coming down now,'” he said.

After his announcement, the Internet snark ranged from, “Thanks for the heads up!” to semi-obscenities, all of which Nuth said he takes in stride.

This year, NASA created a Planetary Defense Coordination Office to track potential threats to Earth from comets and asteroids. While it seems more like the stuff of science fiction, Nuth said it never hurts to be prepared, and cites a more down-to-earth example.

“People die in auto accidents all the time, and now that there are seat-belts in cars, that number’s gone down,” he added. “If you can start to put precautions in place, on some appropriate level, to reduce the chance that you’re going to have some fatalities, that’s a good thing.”

Nuth advocates creating a “high-reliability” spacecraft to destroy a potential comet threat, but said it would take years to develop. He adds the time to prepare isn’t when danger is inevitable.

“Five-hundred years from now, if we’re a space-faring civilization, this isn’t such a big deal because we could divert the resources that we needed to take care of the problem,” he explained. “Right now, we’re just barely starting, and that’s why we need the precautions. We need to get over that one period of vulnerability, now that we know it exists.”

The spacecraft idea faces opposition from those who question spending money on a hypothetical situation, as well as those who fear such a craft could be weaponized.